Punk Science talks poles… the magnetic ones, of course!

Welcome to the third semester of Punk Science, my fellow nerdlings!
As most people that have taken a high school level science class are aware, the Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field that protects our little planet from solar radiation. Without this protective layer, the earth would be more akin to a deserted wasteland than a Goldilocks planet fit for habitation.
This field is caused by the liquid iron that moves around in the Earth’s outer core. The super-heated metal acts much like any standard bar magnet and sends out a field that keeps Earth mostly free from many forms of cosmic and solar radiation.
However, in recent years, this magnetic field that makes our little planet special has been experiencing major changes.
The first and largest of these shifts is the large patch of our magnetic shield in the Southern Atlantic that is significantly thinner than the field elsewhere around the globe. There has been speculation since the 1950s about what has caused this hole-like breach to appear.
Some scientists believe that the shield wearing thin is caused by turbulence in the Earth’s core. If the iron there is acting in a contrary manner, it can have a direct effect on the strength and orientation of the field that keeps us all from becoming radioactive toast.
Another phenomenon that is related to this magnetic field is that the northern magnetic pole has been shifting for years towards the Russian Arctic. While the signs are not clear yet as to whether this trend will have severe consequences, there is a distinct possibility that the Earth’s magnetic poles could flip in the next few hundred or thousand years.
The last time such an even occurred was roughly 770,000 years ago. That time is marked in the Earth’s history like a fingerprint. Scientists have been looking at these fingerprints recently and have noted that iron filings in magma and levels of a certain carbon molecule found in Kauri trees in New Zealand can give them a snapshot of the magnetic activity of the earth.
One such dramatic reversal of the poles happened about 42,000 years ago. Magnetic north took a little vacation and headed down south for a period of about 800 years before it returned to its proper resting spot via the Indian ocean.
This shifting of our magnetic shielding can have pretty dire consequences, scientists are finding out.
One of the major discoveries that appears to be linked to this phenomenon is cave paintings. There is a distinct starting point of this artwork that takes place nearly the same time as the poles were shifting the last time 42,000 years ago. Early humans would likely have retreated to caves to avoid the excessive ionizing radiation and the more prominent electrical storms that would have made life deadly.
Imagine an apocalyptic wasteland from your favourite dystopian thriller, and you’ll have some idea of what life was like in those conditions. It would have been almost impossible to go out during the day without protection from the sun’s radiation. There is speculation that the specific red pigment used in these cave paintings may have been a primitive form of sunscreen to protect Neanderthals from exposure.
In ancient times, this level of increased radiation would have caused large animal extinctions and made living difficult for the survivors. Today, the consequences could be far more dire given humanity’s reliance on electrical technology. If the magnetic shield that surrounds earth were to drastically thin, say to six percent of what it is at peak strength, then solar radiation could knock out power grids and scramble electronic communications.
Remember that thin spot above the southern Atlantic? That has been causing numerous issues with satellites that pass within that weak spot. Because of the reduced amount of magnetic protection, the tracking of those satellites can be distorted, and transmission can be hindered.
With the present-day woes in Texas from the snow storms that knocked out power state wide, we can begin to see what a potential failure in our electrical systems could look like, albeit on a relatively minor scale. If the shielding wears thin enough, or if the sun has an active period of radiation generation while the shields aren’t at optimal strength, then entire swaths of the earth’s power systems could fail, fried by cosmic radiation.
On top of that, there would likely be massive changes in climate if the poles flipped as they did many thousands of years ago. It likely happened to the cave men, and it could happen to us if the poles decide to switch places.
The likelihood of this occurrence is some ways off yet, so there is still time for the world to prepare for such an event. In the meantime, scientists will continue to look into the phenomenon and attempt to puzzle out some of the mysteries that still surround the planet’s outermost defenses.
For now, that’s all the science we’ll be looking at this week. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of Punk Science, where we’ll be looking at yet another fascinating area of science and technology. Until next time, farewell from Punk Science, where we’re making science cool again!